(first posted 5/14/2013) Pontiac had an interesting lineup in the Sixties. While most people remember the Catalina, Grand Prix, GTO and Bonneville when it comes to ’60s Ponchos, the Star Chief still hung in there despite its ’50s-vintage nomenclature. The somewhat ignored middle child in the big Pontiac lineup is neither well-remembered or often seen today, so you can understand why I was happy to see one at last year’s Galesburg Car Show. Yes, I am still mining pictures from that single event–there were so many cool cars there!
The Star Chief debuted in 1954 as the top-of-the-line Pontiac. Unlike the rest of the 1954 lineup, the Star Chief rode the longer, 123.5-inch wheelbase of the A-body Buicks and Oldses (think Super 88/Century, not Ninety-Eight/Roadmaster) and, as you’d expect, also featured more chrome and nicer interiors.
It remained top dog through ’57, the year the Bonneville was introduced as a limited-edition, fuel-injected convertible. That marked the beginning of the end for the Star Chief as the best Pontiac you could get; the following year, a two-door hardtop joined the no-longer limited-edition Bonnie convertible in the 1958 lineup.
The Star Chief remained top-range when it came to four-doors and station wagons, but only for 1958. In 1959, Pontiac introduced its redesigned Wide-Track models, which now included a Bonneville Vista hardtop sedan as well as a Bonneville wagon–and thus confirmed the Star Chief’s new second-banana status.
Whether the Star Chief became either a deluxe Catalina or cheaper Bonneville in 1959 depends on your point of view; although it shared the Bonnie’s l123″ wheelbase, interiors were not Bonneville-plush. Apparently, Star Chief target buyers were people who wanted the smoother ride of a wheelbase three inches longer than the Catalina’s but didn’t want to pay Bonneville prices.
In 1962, the Star Chief still hung in there for those who still wanted one. At 41,642 units sales numbers were no great shakes, perhaps because the Star Chief was now offered only as a four-door sedan or four-door Vista hardtop. No two-door hardtop, no station wagon–in other words, nothing really sporty or versatile.
With their fine styling, they looked just as good as other Pontiacs of the era, but customers set on a Pontiac with flair probably drove out of their friendly dealer’s lot in a Bonneville hardtop, GP or Catalina convertible. The Vista hardtop coupes were especially striking, and the Star Chief series missed out.
The easiest way to spot a Star Chief is by the row of chrome stars on the rear quarter; in fact, from a distance that’s about the only way you can tell a Star Chief from a Catalina. It’s only as you get closer and notice the longer wheelbase that you know what you’re looking at. You’d never mistake one of these for a Bonneville, which wore far more gingerbread.
Interiors were also less flashy than with the Bonneville. While in 1962 a well-to-do insurance agent might have a Bonneville two-door hardtop, and a grocery store manager a Catalina four-door sedan, the Star Chief was a car I could see the local elementary-school principal driving. Big and comfortable, but without excessive trim fillips.
The Catalina (and even the expensive Bonneville) both outsold the Star Chief handily that year, to the tune of 204,654 Cats and 97,772 Bonnevilles–and that’s not including 4,527 Bonneville Custom station wagons. Even so, the Star Chief stayed in the lineup through 1965. In 1966 it became the Star Chief Executive, and then just plain Executive, from 1967-70, after whicn it disappeared. But I’ve always liked the name and when I saw this one, I had to give it a good once-over. It is owned by a local insurance agency that in the 1980s became locally famous for its fire-engine-red Lincoln Town Car company cars. Today they use bright-red Tahoes and Suburbans, so it seems their history with red cars goes back quite some time!